Entrepreneurship thrives in Air Capital

There's no simple answer why entrepreneurship has bloomed in Wichita for a century. Fran Jabara, the father of entrepreneurship as an academic discipline at Wichita State University, boils it down as simply as anyone.

"Wichita is a 'why not?' town, not a 'why?' town," said the entrepreneur who founded WSU's Center for Entrepreneurship in 1977.

For decades, Wichita has been the place where business ideas can bloom, beginning with the city's oil men.

The entrepreneurship thread runs through the booms and busts of the aviation industry to two brothers' idea for a fast pizza and the rent-to-own industry — all of them generating the money and expertise that percolate through the economy, creating jobs and other business opportunities.

"We've had such an incredible history and culture of entrepreneurship and opportunity that I think it creates more opportunities," said Bud Gates, a local entrepreneur whose resume includes Pizza Hut and Rent-a-Center.

"People here who were entrepreneurs here generally did very well at it, so they have that spirit and they have a fat wallet," Gates said.

"They either end up funding their own additional ideas or they become a magnet for other people's ideas. More often than not, you're going to find people willing to take a flier on your idea in Wichita.

"It's a take on success breeding success, but more that successful entrepreneurship fosters additional entrepreneurship."

There's a "do it right" theme through every successful entrepreneur, according to Charles Koch, chief executive of Koch Industries.

In his book, "Science of Success," Koch wrote, "Principled entrepreneurship is maximizing long-term profitability for the business by creating real value in society while acting lawfully and with integrity."

Success stories

Ideas are no stranger to the team of Bill Simon, Randy Simon and Scott Redler.

They cooked up the notion of a dinner-only steakhouse in 1997, and turned it into Timberline.

But even they are shocked at the success of a business model born of Missouri frozen custard and the need to keep cash registers ringing when cold weather dampens custard sales.

Freddy's Frozen Custard and Steakburgers, they say, was an accident — an accident that has produced 52 stores in Kansas and across the South and Southwest, with eyes on an East Coast presence.

Redler, a St. Louis native, grew up around Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. The Simon brothers locked onto frozen custard during a trip through the Ozarks.

"We started kicking the thing around, not even seriously, about opening a custard joint in Wichita," Bill Simon said. "A hobby. We all already had day jobs.

"As we started thinking about the packaging, we had all those winter months with overhead and custard only. We needed something else."

Problem was, agreement on something else was hard.

"We all loved something — the Chicago Dog from Chicago, things like that," Simon said.

"Steakburgers like Dad used to make in the kitchen were the thing we could all get unanimous on."

So Redler was turned loose with the charge: Develop a steakburgers and custard concept good enough to make one store on 21st near Tyler go.

"We all loved steakburgers and skinny fries done right," Redler said. "We missed this kind of food. We wanted someone to do it right. Kinda the values Freddy and his wife, Norma Jean, have. Don't cheat the customer. Don't do it easier. Do it quicker, and do it right."

Doing it right became the foundation for Freddy's. Still, the restaurant was "just a hobby to us," Simon said.

"Shortsightedness on our part, I guess," he said, chuckling. "I think it's rare to have a business idea that you think will be a franchise.

"You've got to have a vision that works, and even when this one did, we were still saying no to the franchise idea. But we built the second store on Rock Road and the thing worked there, too."

So well, in fact, that Simon and Redler say they remain surprised by Freddy's success.

"We didn't do a lot of advertising at the start," Simon said. "But our sales were great out west from the start. Now, the west store's doing four times that and we were happy back then. It's amazing, and I remain surprised at both facts."

From idea to reality

Timing is everything, said Dan Carney, who founded Pizza Hut restaurants with his brother, Frank, in 1958.

"So much of business success is timing," Carney said. "You have to have the ability to move an idea once you get started."

Moving an idea, Carney said, is "making it expandable," as Pizza Hut became once its first ventures in Wichita and Topeka took off.

Many successful entrepreneurs are driven by two things: poverty and a desire to be their own boss.

"I don't think I had mentors, really," said Barry Downing, president of Northrock Inc., an entrepreneurial real estate and health-care business in Wichita.

"Like most of the people who are successful entrepreneurs, I think I was inspired by wanting so badly to be a success.

"Like most of the guys you're talking about — Walter Beech, Frank and Dan Carney, Tom Devlin — I started poor and wanted a better life. Maybe that's a little bit of the Western cowboy spirit people talk about."

Gates is the exception — an MBA from Harvard who took some of the business school's first entrepreneurship courses.

He's driven by the lure of the unproven business idea.

"I love the whole process of trying to bring an idea to fruition," he said. "I'm constantly coming up with things I think have never been done, or a unique riff on something that's been done before."

Gates is also driven by fending off the different levels of risk an entrepreneur faces.

"There are all kinds of different layers of entrepreneurship," he said.

"The Holy Grail is to start from scratch. Buying a franchise is a hybrid. One big reason why franchises do much better than start-ups is a lot of the vetting process has already happened. Great franchises have the infrastructure behind the brand and that reduces a lot of the risk."

Despite a struggling local economy weighed down by aviation layoffs, none of the businessmen expect entrepreneurship to wane in Wichita.

"Success breeds success," Carney said. "Small business is always going to be the backbone of America, with more jobs created there than anywhere. It's what makes America tick."